Heyday of the nursery rhyme past, but it could return

Published 9:24 pm Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Generations grew up with the “sticks and stones” rhyme. You know, the one that ends, “but words can never hurt me.”

Increasingly, it’s fallen out of fashion.

Learned people, scholars at prestigious universities are increasingly arguing that speech can and should be considered harmful and destructive, and that there are certain viewpoints it should be illegal to express.

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Of course, this was not the thinking when the First Amendment was drafted. The thinking about freedom of expression back then was that idea-sharing was essential to societal advancement. Good ideas would take root. Wackadoo ideas would wither.

Sometimes things have worked that way; sometimes they haven’t.

Here’s what’s cool: It may make our heads to think about it, but almost all nursery rhymes date to times and places where there was no such thing as freedom of speech.

Seriously, rhymes were “code,” often used mocking royalty or to describe the lot of the everyday man.

“Mistress Mary, quite contrary” dates to the rule of Bloody Mary, not the cocktail but the queen of England starting in 1518. Her social policy included burning Protestants at the stake as heretics. The “silver bells” and “cockle shells” were street names for torture devices, kind of like we call the electric chair “Old Sparky” today.

“Ring around the rosy” mocked those who suffered from the skin sores that were the first symptom of the almost always fatal plague. “We all fall down.”

“Goosey, goosey gander” is said to reference to a practice of wealthy families hiding priests who, if found, would be executed along with the family hiding them. That was when Protestants were in charge and Catholics were on the run.

Back in the day, common people had absolutely no free speech rights, but could get their feelings known through cute, memorable rhymes — so that’s what they did.

A few years ago, the magazine Psychology Today offered a modification: “Sticks and stones may break my bones … and words will cut me deeply.” That, however, was in the context of one-on-one verbal abuse. It was about bullying, which can and does cause personal damage.

The larger context is protesting against expression of viewpoints based on serious and well-founded disagreement with those viewpoints.

These protests take the form of arguments to limit what has been free speech, based largely on an expansion of “cutting deeply.” In other words, if verbal abuse of an individual can be harmful to an individual, does it not follow that telling groups what they don’t want to hear would also be harmful? Is there such thing as group bullying?

A cryptic response to the topic is, “If you don’t like what you think a person is going to say, don’t listen.” But that doesn’t address the scholars’ point that the harm of some ideas is to society as a whole; that’s it’s not about individual ears, individual sensibilities.

Another response, quite accurate, is that the left raised high the banner of free speech back in the 1960s and 1970s when fervor against Vietnam and for civil rights was being squelched, so it’s more than a little hypocritical for the left to demand limits on conservative expression today.

It’s not as easy a topic as it first appears. Most journalists, quite naturally, are steadfastly against any controls on public expression. Our belief is that folks ought to put on their big-people britches; that the First Amendment is at the very core of American exceptionalism. Rowdy, issue-centered debate is healthy debate.

But around the world today the vast majority of people live where government decides what is good for people to hear or know and what is harmful and destructive to national interests. Some of these are totalitarian regimes, as England once was, but many others are modern, developed, progressive nations, too.

What it comes down to is this: The lesson of at least 600 years of history is that the people will speak whether or not they have official permission. The bold will risk all — Nelson Mandela, Ghandi and Patrick Henry come immediately to mind — but the masses will have a voice, too. They may speak in code, as they did in the 1500s and 1600s, but they will be heard and cannot be stifled.

If the argument takes root that some ideas and expressions are so harmful that government should make them illegal, we might go back to nursery rhymes.

“Lefties, lefties all around

do not wish to hear a sound.

Quietly, quietly righties speak

To show that they are truly meek.”

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.